A week ago I reposted an article from Laura Richardson’s blog on good conservation news. It seems that today a piece of such news was encouraged as part of the national conversation. In the news this evening, research from Vincent Wildlife Trust showing an increase in population of European polecats (Mustela putorius) in Britain was highlighted to households across the nation. Chris Packham has called it, quite rightly, ‘a conservation success in my lifetime‘. But it got me thinking – why did the polecat make the news when conservation usually struggles to reach a wider audience through conventional media platforms?
Before I go on to discuss the issue of why some nature and conservation stories are favoured above others I want to reflect on the news itself regarding pole cats. 100 years ago polecats were at the brink of extinction, principally because of their taste for poultry and small game birds. They were rapidly disposed of across estates and the wider countryside. Eventually they could only be found in a few pockets of Wales and Scotland. However, recent research has shown that they are now spreading across the country, from Cumbria and South Yorkshire to Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon, as well as being found across Wales.
The map above is sourced from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-35386042
The principal reason for their comeback is legal protection under the Wildlife & Countryside Act (1981), a sign that at least some conservation policies really work. The pole cat preys on small mammals such as voles, fulfilling a vital role in the ecosystems in which it lives. Clearly, it is thriving but we must keep aware of its position and improve our understanding of how population dynamics change over time. In mainland Europe there has recently been a decline in population although it isn’t known exactly why this is. Nonetheless, for now at least conservationists can celebrate and we should be proud that this native mammal is doing so well.
So, why and how has the polecat bucked the trend and made the national news? It’s not as if there aren’t plenty of other more conventional stories that could be reported.
It could be ‘the cute factor’. Polecats have distinctive faces, seemingly ‘strokeable’ fur and big bright eyes that are characteristic of any creature that the public at large are likely to warm to. It could be that much time has passed and today the generations who have lived without the polecat (or at least had no awareness of it) for so long are removed from the issues that many farmers and keepers faced 100 years ago. Quite simply we aren’t threatened by them anymore and this influences the way we think of them. Thirdly it could be that the mainstream media are spotting a current interest in conservation issues, particularly at the moment with series 4 of Winterwatch on the box and so it is more relevant and likely to draw interest as a news story.
In short, the reasons could be numerous and it is a highly complex issue. Nonetheless, it remains that nature stories are perceived as niche and therefore not worth that much air time in conventional news circles. Other than climate change stories, broader issues relating to the natural world are rarely tackled in the mainstream media, especially on televised media channels. On programmes such as Countryfile investigations tend to scratch the surface and then leave conversations up in the air. Soon after the broadcast broader interest will usually dissipate and the opportunity to trigger wider debate vanishes. Without social media platforms, blogs and youtube it would be far more difficult for those with an interest in conservation issues to share their interest with others and take part in a broader national conversation. Yes, conservationists do occasionally meet up but it can be a lonely interest. The question is, how to encourage that conversation to take place on a greater percentage of conventional media platforms, outside of George Monbiot’s column and how to encourage a national conversation that encourages more people to become conservationists in their ways of thinking?